CDC Provides Facts on Ricin
Poison not contagious, but no antidote exists
The U.S. Senate was disrupted starting February 2 by discovery
of the poison ricin in an office mailroom. As investigation
into the incident unfolded, the White House acknowledged February
4 that it, too, had received a letter containing the poison
in November. Attention also refocused on a recent ricin mailing
at a South Carolina postal facility. So far, no one has become
ill from exposure to this toxic substance in any of these incidents.
With these events, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Protection updated a fact sheet originally issued in October,
describing what ricin is and what to do in the event of exposure.
Following is the fact sheet:
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Facts About Ricin
Download PDF version formatted
is a poison that can be made from the waste left over from
processing castor beans.
can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or
it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.
is a stable substance. For example, it is not affected
much by extreme conditions such as very hot or very cold
ricin is found and how it is used
beans are processed throughout the world to make castor
oil. Ricin is part of the waste “mash” produced
when castor oil is made.
has some potential medical uses, such as bone marrow transplants
and cancer treatment (to kill cancer cells).
you could be exposed to ricin
would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to
poison people. Accidental exposure to ricin is highly unlikely.
can breathe in ricin mist or powder and be poisoned.
can also get into water or food and then be swallowed.
of ricin, or ricin dissolved in a liquid, can be injected
into people’s bodies.
on the route of exposure (such as injection), as little
as 500 micrograms of ricin could be enough to kill an adult.
A 500-microgram dose of ricin would be about the size of
the head of a pin. A much greater amount would be needed
to kill people if the ricin were inhaled (breathed in)
1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist
who was living in London, died after he was attacked by
a man with an umbrella. The umbrella had been rigged to
inject a poison ricin pellet under Markov’s skin.
reports have indicated that ricin may have been used in
the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s and that quantities
of ricin were found in Al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan.
poisoning is not contagious. It cannot be spread from person
to person through casual contact.
works by getting inside the cells of a person’s body
and preventing the cells from making the proteins they
need. Without the proteins, cells die. Eventually this
is harmful to the whole body, and death may occur.
of ricin poisoning depend on whether ricin was inhaled,
ingested, or injected.
and symptoms of ricin exposure
major symptoms of ricin poisoning depend on the route of
exposure and the dose received, though many organs may
be affected in severe cases.
symptoms of ricin poisoning by inhalation may occur within
8 hours of exposure. Following ingestion of ricin, initial
symptoms typically occur in less than 6 hours.
- Inhalation: Within
a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin, the
likely symptoms would be respiratory distress (difficulty
breathing), fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the
chest. Heavy sweating may follow as well as fluid building
up in the lungs (pulmonary edema). This would make breathing
even more difficult, and the skin might turn blue. Excess
fluid in the lungs would be diagnosed by x-ray or by listening
to the chest with a stethoscope. Finally, low blood pressure
and respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. In
cases of known exposure to ricin, people having respiratory
symptoms that started within 12 hours of inhaling ricin
should seek medical care.
- Ingestion: If
someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she
would develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody.
Severe dehydration may be the result, followed by low blood
pressure. Other signs or symptoms may include hallucinations,
seizures, and blood in the urine. Within several days,
the person’s liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop
working, and the person could die.
and eye exposure: Ricin in the powder or mist form can
cause redness and pain of the skin and the eyes.
from ricin poisoning could take place within 36 to 72 hours
of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation,
ingestion, or injection) and the dose received. If death
has not occurred in 3 to 5 days, the victim usually recovers.
these signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean that
a person has been exposed to ricin.
ricin poisoning is treated
no antidote exists for ricin, the most important factor is
avoiding ricin exposure in the first place. If exposure cannot
be avoided, the most important factor is then getting the
ricin off or out of the body as quickly as possible. Ricin
poisoning is treated by giving victims supportive medical
care to minimize the effects of the poisoning. The types
of supportive medical care would depend on several factors,
such as the route by which victims were poisoned (that is,
whether poisoning was by inhalation, ingestion, or skin or
eye exposure). Care could include such measures as helping
victims breathe, giving them intravenous fluids (fluids given
through a needle inserted into a vein), giving them medications
to treat conditions such as seizure and low blood pressure,
flushing their stomachs with activated charcoal (if the ricin
has been very recently ingested), or washing out their eyes
with water if their eyes are irritated.
you can know whether you have been exposed to ricin
we suspect that people have inhaled ricin, a potential
clue would be that a large number of people who had been
close to each other suddenly developed fever, cough, and
excess fluid in their lungs. These symptoms could be followed
by severe breathing problems and possibly death.
widely available, reliable test exists to confirm that
a person has been exposed to ricin.
you can protect yourself, and what to do if you are exposed
get fresh air by leaving the area where the ricin was released.
Moving to an area with fresh air is a good way to reduce
the possibility of death from exposure to ricin.
the ricin release was outside, move away from the
area where the ricin was released.
the ricin release was indoors, get out of the building.
you are near a release of ricin, emergency coordinators
may tell you to either evacuate the area or to “shelter
in place” inside a building to avoid being exposed
to the chemical. For more information on evacuation during
a chemical emergency, see Facts
About Evacuation. For more information on sheltering
in place during a chemical emergency, see Facts
About Sheltering in Place.
you think you may have been exposed to ricin, you should
remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with
soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.
take off clothing that may have ricin on it. Any
clothing that has to be pulled over the head should
be cut off the body instead of pulled over the head.
you are helping other people remove their clothing,
try to avoid touching any contaminated areas, and
remove the clothing as quickly as possible.
quickly as possible, wash any ricin from your skin
with large amounts of soap and water. Washing with
soap and water will help protect people from any
chemicals on their bodies.
your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred,
rinse your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes.
If you wear contacts, remove them and put them with
the contaminated clothing. Do not put the contacts
back in your eyes (even if they are not disposable
contacts). If you wear eyeglasses, wash them with
soap and water. You can put your eyeglasses back
on after you wash them.
of your clothes:
you have washed yourself, place your clothing inside
a plastic bag. Avoid touching contaminated areas
of the clothing. If you can't avoid touching contaminated
areas, or you aren't sure where the contaminated
areas are, wear rubber gloves, turn the bag inside
out and use it to pick up the clothing, or put the
clothing in the bag using tongs, tool handles, sticks,
or similar objects. Anything that touches the contaminated
clothing should also be placed in the bag. If you
wear contacts, put them in the plastic bag, too.
the bag, and then seal that bag inside another plastic
bag. Disposing of your clothing in this way will
help protect you and other people from any chemicals
that might be on your clothes.
the local or state health department or emergency
personnel arrive, tell them what you did with your
clothes. The health department or emergency personnel
will arrange for further disposal. Do not handle
the plastic bags yourself.
more information about cleaning your body and disposing
of your clothes after a chemical release, see Chemical
Agents: Facts About Personal Cleaning and Disposal of Contaminated
someone has ingested ricin, do not induce vomiting or give
fluids to drink.
medical attention right away. Dial 911 and explain what
you can get more information about ricin
can contact one of the following:
poison control center (1-800-222-1222)
for Disease Control and Prevention
Response Hotline (CDC)
Preparedness and Response Web site
Public Inquiry c/o BPRP
Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Planning
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333
for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) (1-888-422-8737)
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop E-29
Atlanta, GA 30333
fact sheet is based on CDC’s best current information.
It may be updated as new information becomes available.
more information, visit www.bt.cdc.gov or
call the CDC public response hotline
at (888) 246-2675 (English), (888) 246-2857 (Español), or (866) 874-2646